With the first of the Menendez brothers finally scheduled to take the witness stand today, the focus of their murder trial switches back to the shotgun slayings of their parents--after weeks of anecdotes about the brothers’ childhood.
The seemingly endless recollections about the Menendez family--supplied by relatives, teachers, coaches, neighbors, friends and others--came to a sudden end Wednesday when Van Nuys Superior Court Judge Stanley M. Weisberg ruled it was time for the brothers to testify in their own defense.
Lyle Menendez, 25, will testify first and Erik Menendez, 22, will follow, though a witness or two may come in between, defense lawyers said. Each brother will probably be on the stand for a week or more.
As the first phase of the defense case came to a close, the brothers’ lawyers asserted that the nearly three weeks of anecdotes effectively laid the framework for the climactic testimony of the defendants, who say they killed in self-defense after enduring years of physical, mental and sexual abuse.
But prosecutors predicted the unearthing of family trivia may backfire if jurors perceived the testimony as trivializing murder. And the stories obviously irritated Weisberg, who said at one point: “We’re not talking about a child custody case here,” though he gave defense attorneys leeway to pursue the tactics they thought best.
The stream of anecdotes left some courtroom observers and legal experts unclear on just what point the defense had made: If mother Kitty Menendez smelled funny and needed to bleach her hair, as one former neighbor testified, just what did that have to do with murder? Or why did jurors need to know that while the brothers practiced their tennis loudspeakers often boomed out squeaky music from the cartoon show “Chip ‘n’ Dale”?
“I don’t know if that has anything to do with justifying the killing, or even mitigating it,” said Robert Pugsley, a professor of criminal law and ethics at Southwestern University in Los Angeles.
Jurors were obviously restless during the first phase of the defense case. Early on, while the judge and lawyers were holding a conference in a corner of the courtroom, three of the panelists did the Wave to delighted squeals of other jurors.
And that was after hearing merely the first tales of life in the Menendez household, replete with references to ferrets, caviar and Cookie Monster dolls--but little mention of the Aug. 20, 1989, shotgun slayings of Jose and Kitty Menendez.
This week, jurors took a more conventional approach. As one of Erik Menendez’s teachers droned on Tuesday about his performance in her ninth-grade English class, two jurors dropped off to sleep.
Five other teachers testified about the Menendez family--as well as six relatives, four tennis coaches, one swim coach, one soccer coach, one swim team pal, five neighbors, a school nurse and even someone who sat across from Jose and Erik Menendez at a banquet.
To be sure, the 32 defense witnesses to date have effectively portrayed wealthy entertainment executive Jose Menendez, 45, as an overbearing power freak who hit and yelled at his sons, and Kitty Menendez, 47, as a cold, unloving enigma with a drug problem.
But witnesses also dealt out loads of irrelevant tidbits. Jurors now know that Lyle Menendez could ride a bicycle without training wheels at age 3 and that Erik Menendez recited a soliloquy from Shakespeare’s “Richard II” in his senior-year English class at Beverly Hills High.
“I think this sort of stuff hurts them . . . makes them look desperate,” said Dominick Dunne, who has attended the trial every day to write about it for Vanity Fair magazine. “They’ve got to get to the heart of the matter already. The alleged molestation. The issue of imminent danger. What the case is about.”
The defense argues that the brothers finally lashed out against their parents much as a battered woman might attack her abuser, alleging that Jose Menendez molested Lyle Menendez from age 6 to 8 and Erik Menendez from age 6 to 18.
But although many witnesses have described verbal and physical abuse--such as punches by the father--only one, Diane Vander Molen, 34, the brothers’ cousin, testified to sexual abuse. She said 8-year-old Lyle Menendez confided to her in 1976 that he and his father had been “touching each other down there.”
Vander Molen, who lives in Denver, said she called Kitty Menendez, who did not seem to believe her--and the subject was never mentioned again.
Often, the testimony has seemed most suited for tabloid TV, with accounts of the lifestyles of the rich and famous, jammed full of gossip.
Kathleen A. Simonton, 32, of Concord, Calif., another cousin of the brothers, said Jose Menendez made her eat caviar even though “I don’t like fish.”
Vander Molen, Simonton’s sister, testified that Lyle Menendez adored his big, blue Cookie Monster doll above all his other stuffed animals. She also was the first of four witnesses to testify about the family’s pet ferrets--and about the pet droppings found around the house.
Asked by prosecutors to say something nice about Kitty Menendez, Marta Cano, 51, of West Palm Beach, Fla., volunteered that her sister-in-law could move a Christmas tree around the room without waiting for her husband.
On Wednesday, Skip E. Lowe, 62, of West Hollywood, a cable TV talk show host, said he once attended a Beverly Hills banquet--as the escort of former B-movie starlet Mamie Van Doren--and saw Jose Menendez pinch Erik Menendez on the arm and say, “Shut up, you dummy.”
“We’ve presented the juries with gunshot purchase records, alibi records and autopsy photographs,” said Deputy Dist. Atty. Pamela Bozanich. “So far the main themes of the defense seem to be ferret poop and the Cookie Monster.”
Prosecutors allege that the brothers killed out of hatred and greed and a desire to commit the “perfect crime.”
“They haven’t put a dent in our theory of premeditation nor have they been able to show this wasn’t a multiple murder,” Bozanich said. “I’m quite pleased with the way things are going.”
But defense lawyers said they, too, are pleased.
“When this case began and we revealed what our defense was, no one took us seriously,” said Jill Lansing, Lyle Menendez’s lead attorney. “No one in Los Angeles who got their information from the press believed these children led anything but a privileged and charmed existence.
“I think,” Lansing said in an interview, “the picture has been changed.”
But Lansing admits that a challenge awaits Erik and Lyle Menendez: They must show jurors there is a connection between the childhood events and the volley of shots that killed their parents in the den of the family’s Beverly Hills mansion.
“Everything that happened in these children’s lives had an impact on how they perceived their parents,” Lansing said at one hearing.
“The issue is whether these were parents they could reasonably perceive would kill them.”
Lansing and Leslie Abramson, Erik Menendez’s lead lawyer, have been spending nights and weekends at the county jail, preparing the brothers for the witness stand. Lansing even asked Thursday for a postponement of Lyle Menendez’s testimony until Monday to give her more time, but was told by the judge to be ready this afternoon.
Of course, prosecutors have been preparing as well, and they vow a no-holds-barred cross-examination--including use of tantalizing evidence that has only been hinted at so far.
In court documents filed this week, Bozanich indicated that Lyle Menendez may face questions about statements by a onetime girlfriend, Jamie Pisarcik, “which indicate the attempt to fabricate a defense.”
Lyle Menendez also can expect to be confronted with a 17-page letter he wrote his brother from jail, apparently thinking that the contents would remain confidential--only to have authorities seize it from Erik Menendez’s cell.
Peter Aranella, a UCLA law professor who has been following the trial, said the brothers’ performance will probably determine how the jury views the weeks of testimony on matters such as how Jose Menendez insisted his sons hit tennis balls “on the rise.”
“Basically, all this material provides a context in which to listen to and understand Lyle and Erik’s testimony,” Aranella said.
“If their testimony about serious abuse is believed, then what seemed trivial before will take on a more sinister color. On the other hand, if the jury does not believe the brothers’ testimony about serious abuse, then what appeared trivial before will appear even more irritating afterward.
“In short,” he said, “everything hinges on their credibility.”